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"We trained hard ... but it seemed that every time  
we were beginning to form up into teams  we would
be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend
to meet any new situation by reorganizing;
and a wonderful method it can be for creating
the illusion of progress while producing
confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation."

        Gaius Petronius (called Arbiter) 27-66 CE
                * SEE NOTE AT END



ACM DL Author-ize serviceThe reorg cycle

Phillip Armour
Communications of the ACM, 2003


Consider an organization as being represented by a sphere with radii, uh, radiating from the center and with each radius representing some characteristic of the organization and what it is doing and how it works.  Examples of the characteristics could be:

  •  Customers

  •  Products and product lines

  •  Technology used in products

  •  Technology used in development

  •  Geography

  •  etc.,

Different radii can be aligned (same direction, similar length) or not aligned (orthogonal, different lengths). This represent how closely coupled these characteristics are in the organization.  If an organization's customers all buy the same kind of products developed with the same kind of development technology and are considerate enough to live in the same area of the country, then these radii will be aligned.

  Management is a Hierarchical Structure Imposed on an Event-Driven Asynchronous Environment                   

A management structure is almost always hierarchical though attempts at true "matrix management" are tried from time to time, usually with limited success.  When a single hierarchical structure is imposed on an organization, it tends to enforce single hierarchical control.  But the hierarchy can only truly be associated with one "dimension" of the organization.  Sometimes it is geographical with Eastern and Western US divisions.  Sometimes it is product focused.  Sometimes it is customer focused, with different groups and different management dedicated to different customers.  But it can only be one.

If the radii are closely aligned, then the single hierarchy can be quite effective at managing them all.  But if the radii are not closely aligned, the management structure will be relatively optimal for its primary focus and relatively non-optimal for everything else.

  Fighting Fires, Ignoring Ashes                                   

Why does management exist and what does it pay attention to?  The answer is straightforward: management exists to control and it mostly pays attention to things which it deems are out of controlIf the management structure is optimal for one aspect of a company it will reasonably well control this aspect, but will necessarily short-change the other aspects.  This relative lack of attention and focus causes these aspects to get out of control.  This attracts management attention.  Particularly if a new boss enters the picture, he/she will see the fires breaking out in the skills, resources, development process or whatever other aspect has been ignored.  Of course the primary focus aspects of the organization are working pretty well--they have been the focus of attention after all. 

The solution is to reorganize the business to focus on the hottest fires.  Doing so will bring much needed attention and resources to these hot spots.  At the expense of the other aspects of course.

The Reorg Timetable                                               

  1. New boss arrives

  2. Analyzes issues, recognizes organization is misaligned: primary focus is doing ok thank you, but other aspects of the business need attention

  3. Reorganize! (plus develop all the vision and messaging that says, in effect, "we are reorganizing to address critical issues and to maintain our focus on (a) customers, (b) quality (c) product line, (e) market opportunities (f) cost containment (g) etc"  Pick one)

  4. Shuffle staff, roles and responsibilities, produce org charts.

  5. A period of chaos as people figure out who does what and who they report to.

  6. Settling down period.

  7. Reorg becomes grooved and effective.  Fires start dying down.  Everyone happy.  Boss announces victory and maybe gets a promotion.

  8. As fire starts dying down, previous embers start flaring up.  Organization sub-optimal for these aspects.  People start complaining.

  9. Previous fires now wholly contained, but earlier issues that were under control pre-reorg, becoming a real problem.  Whoosh.

  10. Go to 1 (with apologies to Edsger Djikstra)

That is the Reorg Cycle.  It's about as inevitable as the seasons... as long as we maintain our hierarchical management structures.  But we don't have to do that!

    * The Reorganization Quotation

I'm sure you've seen this quote hanging on a cubicle wall somewhere.  It is usually attributed (as I did)
to one "Petronius Arbiter" who is variously described as a Roman satirist (and indeed the author of "Satyricon"),
who lived in the early first century CE or a more anonymous "member of the Greek Navy" who lived a couple of
hundred years earlier.  The latter is less likely since around 200 BCE most members of the Greek Navy were
usually, well, Greek, and Gauis Petronius is a really Roman name.  The Greeks prided themselves on having
citizen sailors. 
My personal opinion is that the quote was just made up by someone (including the "Arbiter" thing).

No matter. It's a good quote.


The Reorg Cycle